I've spent the last month reading A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos edited by David Trinidad. The book is 590 pages and spans from 1970 to 1990. Reading a book like this, cover to cover, is a very different experience from reading a single volume of poetry by a poet. You are reading a lifetime of work that spans in subject matter, style, and even quality. Not every poem in a "collected poems" book is the poet's very best work, which is what is partly fun and intriguing about it. These books, this one included, showcase the poet in many different ways. The book has the "great poems," but also the experiments or the funny almost offhanded poems that perhaps weren't really meant for publication. These poems, together, paint a full image of the poet.
I first became aware of Tim Dlugos when I read the anthology Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS edited by Philip Clark and David Groff. I've written a lot about this book, because it showcased so many great writers who I had never read. Dlugos was one of them. After reading Persistent Voices, I was pleased to find out that Trinidad was putting together a "collected" volume, which was released earlier this year.
Dlugos is a poet heavily influenced by the New York School. His poems are personal and often closely tied to his everyday life and friends. But Dlugos stands on his own as well. He's not simply a carbon-copy of Frank O'Hara, but rather a complicated and intriguing poet in his own right. He's funny and reflective. This book takes us from his 20s to his death in 1990 at age 40 (just like O'Hara). Dlugos takes us through the surge of gay freedom and sexuality in the 70s and then through the AIDS crisis of the 80s. The crisis that took his life.
Poetry from the AIDS crisis has been an interest of mine for quite some time. There are hundreds of poems on the topic and many very moving and thought-provoking pieces. If I had to name just one that everyone should read, I would have to go with Dlugos's piece "G-9." It's a long poem (18 pages) and written about the AIDS ward (G-9) in Roosevelt Hospital in New York where Dlugos spent a portion of his last two years. The poem captures the crisis in poetry in a way I haven't felt or seen before. It's authentic. It's smart. It makes you think.
While "G-9" is a stand out poem, Dlugos is not just an AIDS writer. The majority of the poems in this book are not on that subject, but are powerful, sharp, witty, and worth reading. Dlugos also stands out in the gay poetry scene for his religious ties. He was a part of various Christian organizations and studied religion throughout his life. Many of his poems reflect this.
Trinidad has done a nice job of editing the collection. He has a brief, but useful introduction and a quick timeline of the major events of Dlugos's life. He also includes various notes on the poems in the index. Trinidad strikes the right balance and gives us just enough information. The poems are divided into four sections labeled with years and locations.
Reading an entire "collected poems" book makes you feel like you've gained a new friend. You learn so much about the poet and his/her life. Over 500 pages of poems is hard to take in, which is why I read with a pencil beside me. I put a star in the table of contents next to any poem that really strikes me that I might want to return to in the future. Dlugos's table of contents is full of stars.